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London is full of life and greener than many think.
  • Pre-valentine day celebration of our Love for Nature

    The places we all cherish have this February moved a step closer to safety, thanks to a couple of Government decisions.

    These important pockets of land, so vital for nature and recreation or simply tranquil spots where people can meditate on life, are under increasing pressure as we struggle to meet the demands of a growing population.

    Sites of Special Scientific Interest [SSSI] are some of the UK’s finest examples of landscapes which support rare and threatened species. You’d think these jewels would be well and truly protected from development.

    On Thursday 12 February the Infrastructure Act 2015 received Royal Assent: a complete exclusion on developments for fracking in protected areas is now law! The precise list of protected areas will be defined in secondary regulations by 31 July. It’s expected to include National Parks, the Broads, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and SSSIs.

    Having said that, the original decision to ban fracking "within and under" protected areas was overturned the week before. We will work to restore the original definition before July 31. The sensitivity and special features of many SSSIs are more than skin deep. Ecosystems like chalk streams, for example, could be particularly vulnerable to impacts such as water abstraction or pollution. So there is obviously more work to be done here to secure “protected” areas from unsuitable uses.

    Friday 13th proved lucky for us, as late in the afternoon, the Department for Communities and Local Government announced they were “calling-in” planning consent granted by Medway Council for 5000 homes (and supporting infrastructure) to be built on a SSSI site at Lodge Hill in Kent.

    What this means is that the objection we lodged in partnership with other conservation organisations, backed by more than 12,400 people, has raised sufficient Government concern that they want to examine Medway Council’s decision in detail.

    The RSPB’s Director of Conservation, Martin Harper, says: “This is about the future of England’s finest nightingale site. Through an inquiry we hope and expect that this development will be rejected and the future of this Site of Special Scientific Interest and all other SSSI’s in the country will be secured. The important issue of housing allocation in North Kent should proceed without impacting on nationally-important wildlife sites.”

    Medway Council’s proposal would destroy 144 hectares of the SSSI, one of the largest losses of a SSSI since the Wildlife and Countryside Act came into force in 1981. The decision is also in direct conflict with the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

    Lodge Hill includes flower-rich grassland and ancient woodland. We don’t yet know exactly what does live on the site. It was a Ministry of Defence base, so access was limited and the surveys that have been conducted were not detailed. We do know that, apart from its sizeable nightingale population, the site is also home to one of England’s rarest butterflies, the Duke of Burgundy. Red shanked carder bee and grizzled skipper butterflies, both also species of conservation concern, have also been recorded at Lodge Hill.Aerial views of Lodge Hill

  • Building a better London, for people AND wildlife

    Untouched plasticine waiting to be moulded, image from internet commons

    The start of a New Year always fills me with positive energy. It’s like unwrapping a shiny new block of plasticine when you were a kid; it’s all clean, flawless and full of potential, filling your senses with its scent, texture and malleability. But whose fingerprints will successfully dominate the creation that will be formed by the end of the year as the plasticine sets hard?

    Tuesday January 6 marked the day predicted by the Greater London Authority for the capital’s population to exceed the last record of 8.6 million people, set in pre-WWII 1939. More people now live in cities worldwide than live in rural settings and this changes the way we manage the world around us.

    Last September on BBC Radio4, Sir David Attenborough talked about promoting women’s rights to save the world, as without exception, “where women are given the rights over their own bodies. Where they have political independence; where they have medical facilities to enable them to control the number of children they bear; where they are literate; where they have the vote. When those things happen, the birth rate falls”.

    Human overpopulation is not a specialist subject of mine, nor is it one the RSPB champions, but it is interesting to hear someone with Sir David’s experiences and understanding of the world highlighting it as an important issue.

    Growing populations do pose challenges, such as the need for more housing, more food and water, increased waste management and energy creation. All of this does impact on species conservation as it reduces the amount of area available to support wildlife. The good news is that we now have the knowledge and technology to enable gains for people and nature in new developments and renovations.

    Barratt Homes is one of the many big developers that recognise this too, and they’re working with the RSPB and others to ensure their new homes incorporate space for wildlife and benefit from what’s called green infrastructure, where landscaping and planting helps manage water and improve air quality. Having access to greenspace is also known to improve people’s physical and mental well-being, making Barratt’s homes more attractive to buyers. It makes you wonder why all other developers have not adopted the same approach.

     It’s relatively easy and saves money in the long-run. What’s more, you can easily copy many of the ideas. Replacing solid outdoor surfaces with material that allows water to drain through reduces run-off to the drains and swelling waterways. Having hedges, trees and shrubs improves air quality, provides space for wildlife and reduces the impact of storms.

    Imagine this multiplied across London with existing homes and gardens, then add the potential new developments can bring, and you can see how easily London could become a world leader in green development and how this can create new jobs and new opportunities while making it a nicer place to visit for people and wildlife. To achieve this, we must all leave our prints in the plasticine.

    A plasticine cityscape created by N16 scholl children, courtesy of the Newham Recorder

  • Are sparrows trying to tell us something

    We're all aware of the old canary down a coalmine story. Miners would drop tools and flee if their caged canaries fell from their perch as it indicated the presence of poisonous gas.

    Well, there is now a European study underway to establish if the decline of our common house sparrow, down 68 % between 1994 and 2009 (BTO Breeding Bird Survey data), is in any way linked with air pollution.

    We know that a lack of food and nesting space are part of the reason, and have long suspected other factors of having an impact. Now the European Commission has published a preliminary paper on the subject. They've found that house sparrows living in highly polluted urban locations have significantly lower haemoglobin and anti-oxidant capacities, which they claim indicates the birds have been exposed to high concentrations of toxic chemicals. Haemoglobin is an important part of red blood cells. In birds and most other animals, it transports oxygen from the lungs around the body.So, do you have a gas mask in my size? Image courtesy of Mike Lawrence.

    This comes as a group of UK MP's recommend schools, care homes and hospitals should not be built near main roads to avoid "tens of thousands" of premature deaths caused by what they describe as the "invisible killer" of air pollution.

    The Commons Environmental Audit Committee chair, Joan Walley says officially 29,000 people a year in the UK die as a result of air pollution, but that doesn't take account of NO2 levels from diesel engines. Another independent UK Government report due out shortly estimates there is an additional 30,000 deaths a year caused by NO2 in the air. In London, Mayor Boris Johnson's official estimates put the death toll from air pollution (not including NO2) at 4,267 in 2008.

    The implications of the EC report on house sparrows is that they may be a natural indicator of pollution which we've overlooked. While the findings are in line with what we know of air pollution, it's too early to say whether it's a contributory factor in the decline of house sparrows.